Creating a tie that binds: The role of newspapers

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 16, 2001

In the late 1800s, journalism was not viewed as a respectable way to earn a living. However, one man, Joseph Pulitzer, raised the standards for newspaper journalists by supporting labor, attacking trusts and monopolies, and by revealing political corruption. Pulitzer envisioned newspapers as a way for people and newspapers to come together to create a strong and safe community.

Since then, many newspaper editors and journalists have attempted to devise new methods of bringing news to communities in an effort to create a link between the two. The most successful campaign thus far has been through what has been labeled civic journalism.

The philosophy behind civic journalism is for both editors and journalists to realize the responsibility that newspapers have to a community. In a sense, it is their job to make citizens better citizens. To do this involves not only listening to the voices of a community, but also to incorporate those voices into stories.

The movement of civic journalism arose out of a concern of both editors and journalists who felt they were either losing touch with the public or had never established it. Editors were concerned because circulation rates were down and distrust for the media was up. Journalists also found problems, not just with lost touch with the public, but also with themselves. Many journalists felt that quality news was slipping away and that newspapers were filled with sloppy reporting, factual errors and editorializing in news stories.

That's where civic journalism comes into play.

According to Jan Schaffer, the executive director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, civic journalism is not about abandoning objectivity or imposing a newspaper's agenda on a community. It is about newspapers and communities working together.

The first goal of civic journalism is to seek new definitions of news. Many times, readers define news as negative issues that a community is faced with. However, news also is composed of positive issues that involve civic and church organizations, schools and government. In addition, news can also be about individuals and their accomplishments. Every single person in a community has a story to tell, whether good or bad. These types of stories often slip through the cracks, which is a loss because of the potential impact that it could have on others. Part of community journalism is to realize that every story is exactly that

a story, and even the saddest of stories could motivate others to take some type of action.

A second major goal of community journalism is to reframe stories to make them relevant to readers. This is especially important to weekly, small town newspapers because it gives members of a community an opportunity to not only voice their opinion, but also discover how their lives will be affected. Issues such as proration, which Alabama is facing now, as well as elections are opportunities for weekly newspapers to help readers realize how their lives may change.

A third goal of civic journalism is to provide entry points for readers to get involved. In other words, it is important for readers get involved, especially in a democracy because people should be the voice. According to Schaffer, civic journalism provides an opportunity for members of a community to get involved rather than "being victims or spectators."

A fourth goal of civic journalism is to redefine balance in the newspaper, giving an opportunity for people who are affected by an issue or a problem to have a voice in the coverage of the issue. It is important for editors and journalists to realize many times that there are not just two sides to a story, but sometimes three, four or five.

Finally, civic journalism encourages editors to provide space in the newspaper for civic organizations, churches and schools. This allows the community a chance to feature news that editors or journalists may not know about.

One of the major responsibilities of newspapers has always been to serve as a watchdog over government affairs. In a study conducted by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, it was shown that this is still a responsibility that the public believes in and should continue to practice. However, it is also the responsibility of the community to voice their opinion on these issues.

Jim Carey, a journalism scholar at Columbia University stated, "Journalism is an expression of public life. Journalists owe their first duty to the fortunes of the community, not to the fortunes of the profession."

Practicing civic journalism is one of the ways in which the people of the community can have a voice in the issues that are affecting daily lives. It is the responsibility of newspapers to listen to that voice. Alexis de Tocqueville, a 19th century French author, stated, "You can't have real newspapers without democracy, and you can't have democracy without newspapers." However, editors and journalists must remember that a newspaper can't exist without a community and most communities can't exist without a newspaper.

Over 100 years ago, Joseph Pulitzer realized the importance of democracy, newspapers and the community. His standards that were set so many years ago are ones that still apply today. Civic journalism is just a new name for an old trick.